U.S. Navy Conducts FONOPS Off Venezuela Amidst Heightened Tensions

USS Nitze arriving at Guantanamo after her recent tour in the Caribbean, June 19 (USN)

Published Jun 23, 2020 7:02 PM by The Maritime Executive

The destroyer USS Nitze recently conducted a freedom of navigation operation in waters claimed by Venezuela, according to U.S. Southern Command. The transit would be routine under normal circumstances, but it occurred in roughly the same timeframe that a series of fuel and food shipments was arriving in Venezuela from Iran - a commercial arrangement opposed by the United States government. The U.S. does not recognize the administration of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, favoring political opposition leader Juan Guaido instead. 

“The [USS Nitze] conducted the operation in international waters outside Venezuela’s 12 nautical mile territorial jurisdiction. During the operation, the ship lawfully navigated an area the illegitimate Maduro regime falsely claims to have control over, a claim that is inconsistent with international law," Southern Command said in a statement. 

The U.S. Navy conducts freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS) with regularity. Though the U.S. is not a signatory to UNCLOS, it broadly supports UNCLOS' framework for freedom of navigation, and the Navy routinely carries out transits and other operations to demonstrate the recognized limits of nations' territorial seas - notably in the South China Sea.

According to the Pentagon's FY2018 FONOPS program report, Venezuela has historically required prior notification for military operations between its 12-nm territorial seas boundary and its EEZ boundary, and it has challenged U.S. government vessels in this zone. This restriction is inconsistent with UNCLOS' provisions. In FY2018, the Navy conducted multiple challenges to this claim and a related Venezuelan flight identification zone. 

The U.S. Navy has also recently accelerated its contributions to the multi-agency counternarcotics effort in the region, augmenting the U.S. Coast Guard's longstanding presence. 

These movements occur against a backdrop of heightened tensions between the United States and Venezuela. Caracas and Tehran are both subject to strict American sanctions on maritime commerce, and the U.S. Treasury Department has few additional penalties to impose on them for their mutual interaction. Iranian tankers delivered five cargoes of much-needed fuel to Venezuela last month, and a 20,000 dwt Iranian bulker recently unloaded a cargo of food and general goods that will be used to establish Venezuela's first Iranian supermarket, according to Iran's embassy in Caracas.